Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Dauntless Faith": Contemplative Sublimity and Social Action in Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck's Aesthetics

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

"Dauntless Faith": Contemplative Sublimity and Social Action in Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck's Aesthetics

Article excerpt

For though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.

--Psalm 23:4 (KJV)

Valour in women is so sublime.

--Joanna Baillie, Preface to Metrical Legends (xxix)

In her Theory on the Classification of Beauty and Deformity and Principles of Beauty as Manifested in Nature, Art, and Human Character, nineteenth-century abolitionist and aesthetic theorist Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck presents dauntless social consciousness as sublime. She does so through her category of "the contemplative sublime," first outlined in her Theory (1815) and then illustrated in her Principles (1859) as a step in-between Edmund Burke's mutually exclusive categories of sublime terror and beautiful love. Through the intermediary category of the contemplative sublime, Schimmelpenninck offers a corrective to Burkean dualism. Schimmelpenninck's nuanced definition of sublimity, moving from a primary stage of bracing terror to a secondary stage of peaceful contemplation enables movement through terror into prayer and active love. This movement leads to her eventual definition of the courageous struggle for social justice as sublime, contrary to Edmund Burke's focus on self-preservation. Expanding upon the conservative Anglicanism of the man she refers to as that "modern writer of eminence, Burke" (Theory 5), Schimmelpenninck, a Quaker turned Methodist turned Moravian, theorizes the generative dissenting sublimity first outlined by poets like Joanna Baillie. Baillie's praise of a dissenting woman's sublimely "dauntless faith" ("Lady Griseld Baillie" 1.847) is echoed by Schimmelpenninck's admiration for Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry. Within Schimmelpenninck's aesthetics, as in Baillie's poetry, awed terror is only an initial stage en route to dauntless social action.

Schimmelpenninck's presentation of women's capacity for sublime fortitude and social action synthesizes the diverse depictions of communal consciousness arising out of terrifying situations found within dissenting women's poetry. In the "Introductory Address" to her Theory, Schimmelpenninck foregrounds the importance of her female literary predecessors. Proposing a pragmatic aesthetics, she claims that,

   Whilst so many of her own sex are employing bright talents to the
   most exalted and noble purposes; whilst some, reverend in piety yet
   more than in years, still maintain with the pen that most holy
   cause they have exemplified in a long life, rich in good
   works ... whilst a tragic genius, such as but once before
   astonished England (and then, like hers, was long unappreciated),
   holds up a faithful mirror to the wayward heart of man, reflecting
   the progress of each incipient passion, the author of the following
   work is ashamed to mention the utility of a theory which,
   even if true, and if, as she believes, applicable to art, can yet
   serve no higher purpose than to furnish with innocent relaxation
   the very few hours which a conscientious Christian ought to afford
   to mere pursuits of taste. (v, my italics)

Traces of Schimmelpenninck's strict Quaker upbringing cause her to worry over the potential self-indulgence of aesthetics, and she defers to models of art with a didactic purpose. The female "tragic genius" she admires remains unnamed, but she is clearly pointing to Joanna Baillie's 1798 Plays on the Passions, which "delineate the progress of the higher passions in the human breast, each play exhibiting a particular passion" (Baillie, "Introductory Discourse" 93). Baillie's texts had the pragmatic purpose of teaching moral strength, not only by instructing readers to anticipate and check solipsistic passions but also by admonishing them to struggle for justice through the exertion of compassionate social virtues.

In recent years, critical attention has focused more intensely on Baillie, emphasizing her contribution to eighteenth-century drama over her sublime poetics, yet no critic has linked her writing to the aesthetic theory of Schimmelpenninck. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.